There’s No Institutional Quick Fix to the Problem of Donald Trump

Institutions can’t stop Donald Trump — but democratic politics can.

Donald Trump during an event at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, US, on Tuesday, June 13, 2023. (Bing Guan / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Exactly eight years ago, a beaming Donald Trump made his way down the escalator at Trump Tower to announce that he was seeking the Republican nomination for president. At the outset, no one in political or media officialdom took his candidacy seriously and, when it emerged a few days later that attendees had been paid $50 to come, the fundamental unseriousness of the Trump campaign was unanimously proclaimed. Throughout the ensuing weeks and months, as the candidate transgressed and insulted everyone around him, it was repeatedly assumed that the established conventions of politics would soon intervene and that the joke must be nearing its inevitable punch line.

But this cathartic denouement never came. Trump, as it turned out, could in fact make obscene comments about immigrants and rise higher in the polls. He could disparage John McCain and bully his various primary opponents. He could run afoul of the august National Review and pry the Republican nomination from the would-be gatekeepers of movement conservatism. He could even be heard on tape boasting about sexual assault and somehow win the presidency a month later. At every turn, people waited for an invisible barrier to impose itself or some indiscretion to finally go too far. Again and again, neither happened.

After Trump’s improbable victory, many turned to institutions for salvation. Perhaps the electors might be persuaded to change their votes and nullify this nightmare before it went any further. Maybe the Robert Mueller investigation would find irrefutable evidence of foreign collusion, or a Watergate-esque media scoop would discover the proverbial smoking gun. In the wake of the 2020 election, the January 6 riot at the Capitol, and the president’s subsequent impeachment and banishment from Twitter, it again seemed momentarily plausible that his goose might be cooked.

And yet. Just over two years later, the same pattern continues to recur. Despite the electoral disaster of last year’s midterms and two separate indictments, Trump maintains a resounding lead in the Republican primaries, and polls still suggest he’s running more or less even with Joe Biden.

In light of all this, perhaps it’s finally time to abandon the idea that there will ever be an institutional solution to the nightmare of Trumpism. Even if the former president is ultimately convicted, nothing will bar him from continuing to run for reelection from prison or disqualify him from taking the office for a second term should he somehow win.

Another electoral defeat might deflate Trump considerably, but the root causes of Trumpism — racism, soaring inequality and human desperation, mass alienation from political institutions, the devolution of politics into empty spectacle, the corrosive influence of organized money — would still remain unaddressed. This is why the antidote has always lain in the kind of popular democratic politics rejected by elites in both major parties. A feckless and technocratically minded liberalism can win occasional victories against a figure like Trump, but it has repeatedly failed to neutralize him.

In the short term, this conclusion would seem to have rather bleak implications. Barring some completely unexpected development, Trump very much looks poised to win the GOP presidential nomination again. Those currently praying for a judge or a prison sentence to finally bury Trumpism are almost certainly going to be disappointed. And expecting the Joe Biden–led Democratic Party to swing toward the populist left or suddenly rediscover the firebrand spirit of the New Deal era, offering American voters a positive political vision that could materially improve their lives rather than simply the negative message that Trump is bad, is a still more unlikely prospect.

Then again, there is also something liberating in the realization that Trumpism is not a malign force of nature that defies all understanding but a political phenomenon for which there are ultimately political solutions. Democracy, in the broadest sense, is the only thing that will ever make Trump, or anything resembling him, impossible beyond the narrow horizons of an individual election cycle.

There will, as a consequence, be no single defining event that finally consigns Trumpism to history’s dustbin. Instead, it will have to meet its demise through innumerable victories, large and small, on many different fronts and in many different theaters: electoral politics, popular legislative campaigns, labor organizing.

Daunting, yes. But also more realistic than waiting for the final intercession of an invisible referee that will never come.